Books

Oliver Sacks
Everything in Its Place

It’s not hard to see why Oliver Sacks captivated the world. The great neurologist – whose case histories in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat could almost have been science fiction had they not been so crystalline and so compassionate – was a master of language who knew how to dramatise and shape his medical material with a calm and meditative grace.

In this late collection of mostly short pieces he says at one point about the early 19th-century chemist Humphry Davy: “At this time there still existed a union of literary and scientific cultures; there was not the dissociation of sensibility that was so soon to come. There was indeed, between Coleridge and Davy, a close friendship and a sense of almost mystical affinity and rapport.”

Sacks’ own writing constantly, a little incredibly, exemplifies this lack of dissociation, so that we read him not so much for his language as for the way his work can mirror unknown worlds in all their mystery without losing a sense of human enigma and human feeling.

He tells stories of his friendship with the doctor and theatre director Jonathan Miller and their terrible juvenile experience that filled Miller’s parents’ house with execrable odours. Knowing he is about to die, he talks about the deep comfort of being made gefilte fish by an African-American woman who had mastered that supremely Jewish dish.

And, yes, there is God’s plenty about neuroscience: Alzheimer’s and how more respectfully and selectively it can be treated, not to mention the burning humanity – as well as the desolation – that may lie behind the experience of schizophrenia. There is, too, a very poised and humane account of what we lost, what we sacrificed, when we decided as a society to save money on mental illness by ceasing to house the afflicted.

Everything in Its Place is a book that traverses worlds. It is very English in its casual urbanity, very New York in its energy and overt polymath intensity, very Jewish in the depth of its feeling for human sadness and human laughter. Without waiting for the evidence to come in, you know that a better book of essays – one that is funnier and sneakier and more grave – will certainly not be published this year.

Peter Craven

Picador, 320pp, $39.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 8, 2019 as "Oliver Sacks, Everything in Its Place". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Peter Craven